Indie App Developers Have It Rough: So What?

Indie app developer Jared Sinclair released an RSS reader for iOS in January, 2014, and he recently wrote about his travails and the lack of income from the app. This article has been taken by many to show that the life of an indie app developer is rough. So what?

All due respect to Mr. Sinclair, but this type of article shows a lack of understanding of business in general; after all, selling an app is a business. And running a business isn’t easy; as Forbes points out, 80% of businesses fail within the first 18 months. So it’s no surprise that an app doesn’t meet the expectations of its developer.

In the case of Mr. Sinclair’s app Unread, I would say that, in spite of the excellent reviews and ratings the app has received, it is in a crowded market, that of RSS readers. And it’s a dying market; more and more people are abandoning RSS for other ways of getting news. If Mr. Sinclair had done some market research, he might have discovered that the number of users who want an RSS reader, divided by the number of RSS readers available, means that there’s a very small segment that he could hope to conquer.

I bought Unread when it was released, and I don’t use it any more. There’s nothing wrong with the app, but I found a better RSS reader for iPhone; and I don’t even check that often, because RSS is no longer essential to me. And, if there had been a demo version of the app – something that I really hope Apple will allow at some point soon – then I may not have even bought it. I might have tried it for, say, 30 days, and found that I just don’t need it.

Unread has generated $32,000 of income for Mr. Sinclair; after expenses and taxes, that translates to $21,000. Not much for what is now a year of work (he started working on it in July, 2013). But should he expect more? To be a successful developer, you need more than just one app. And you need to offer new features to get more users. Granted, there’s not a lot you can do with RSS (though if it could do this, I’d go back to using it).

So a developer needs to branch out and work on new apps. Expecting to make a living on a single app seems naive; imagine if, say, writers had that expectation, that the first novel one publishes is a hit, and it’s all easy after that. It’s no surprise that most writers of fiction have other jobs, often as teachers; with advances often in the four figures for first novels, which may take years to write, the per-hour income is so low that it’s better to not calculate it. And what about indie musicians, who spend years practicing, composing music, and recording it? There’s no guarantee that they’ll sell their albums either.

Back in the early days of the App Store, people made money selling fart apps; that period is gone, and those who enter the market now have to innovate or fail. If the market simply isn’t there for the type of app they’re selling, they need to move on and create something new.

I wish Mr. Sinclair luck in his future ventures, and I hope he’s working on a new app by now to maintain his income. But there’s a lot of competition out there, and it’s tough to run a small business. One should never expect success when starting a business; you hope for the best and plan for the worst.